A sommelier's skills are tested by treats
Samantha Wall will not be stumped. As a Culinary Arts instructor and certified sommelier, she’ll face any pairing challenge with creativity and ingenuity.
“In the world of food and wine pairing, you’re looking for that 1 + 1 = 3,” she says. “The wine tastes better and the food tastes better.”
But can that be done with candy corn?
As we start our video call to talk about matching seasonal sweets with the myriad drinks derived from fermented grapes, I hold up one of the little conical confections – striped pink, white and red for the occasion.
“I had no idea they'd twisted it into a Valentine’s candy,” Wall says of the love-it-or-hate-it treat (full disclosure – I love it). For a moment, she looks incredulous.
Then she gathers herself. “I know exactly what it is – moscato d'asti,” Wall says.
“Your candy is sweet – honey- and vanilla-like – so you’re going to need a wine that is at least as sweet. Your candy is actually going to make the wine taste drier, less fruity, less sweet.
"I also don’t want to overwhelm your candy corn,” she adds, kindly.
“It’s not overly flavourful. It’s just sweet happiness.”
Here, we continue to test Wall’s skills to see how she might sweeten the usual Valentine’s Day offerings with a bottle of something special.
“Sweethearts are reminiscent of chalky tums crossed with a Flintstone vitamin,” says Wall.
“They kind of have a fruit flavour but they really don’t. So what’s the dominant flavour? Chalky sugar.
"They’re actually quite terrible.”
No matter what she chooses, says Wall, it will seem less sweet in comparison – like that candy corn pairing – less fruity and full-bodied. That’s how the brain works, she adds: It fixates on the first source of sweetness.
“I’m going to go with a dry rosé – something that doesn’t have tannin, doesn’t have acid [and] just a slight kiss of sugar.” Upon taking a taste, Wall gets the floral and fruit from the wine and the ambiguous sweetness of the candy, cutting through the unpleasant chalkiness.
“I can taste a strawberry-orange rosewater flavour in the wine, which I think is quite attractive.”
“Spice in food is going to make alcohol in wine seem higher and hotter,” says Wall. “Because that cinnamon spice makes your tongue feel a little prickly, I don’t want to throw high alcohol at that. It’s just going to burn on top of the burn.”
The answer, she says, is a Canadian gewürztraminer, a fragrant white with a hint of spice. “It’s along the lines of clove or ginger. But clover, ginger and cinnamon go really well together.”
The wine also features exotic notes like lychee, pineapple, melon and mango, which Wall also feels go well with cinnamon.
“This is not the best chocolate,” says Wall. “It’s super sweet, super mouth-coating. It’s not overly chocolatey.” Therefore: “Cream sherry – why not?”
This sweeter, heavier wine features toasty notes of nut and caramel, and high alcohol – 17.5% for the bottle Wall had on hand.
“It’s going to cleanse the palate of that richness that’s coating the mouth and it’s going to add a toasted nut quality to that simple chocolate.”
Assorted filled chocolates
As Wall picks through a classic heart-shaped box of assorted chocolates during our call, she pauses at an orange cream as if it’s a gauntlet Valentine’s Day has thrown down before her.
“Oh, that one’s going to be interesting,” she says.
While Wall is stuck on that orange cream (that she’ll soon find to be somewhat “medicine-y”), she’s after one wine to rule them all, including a strawberry cream, a cocoa truffle, and a caramel.
She has two ideas.
"No matter how bad the chocolates are, the champagne is going to be fabulous.”
Idea 1: “Shiraz. Super jammy, just dripping with licorice and cocoa and black currant jam and blackberry jam.” Wall tests it against the orange. “It’s a bit more overpowering than complimentary, but I do still taste the orange on the finish.”
Idea 2: “Break the bank – rosé champagne. Because no matter how bad the chocolates are, the champagne is going to be fabulous.”
Valentine’s Day is meant to be fun, even frivolous. But it needn’t preclude fancy and refined. In the latter case, high-quality candy must be paired with high-quality wine.
“If we’re talking about really expensive dark chocolate, it’s not going to be overly sweet,” says Wall. “It’s going to be elevated, floral; it’s going to have a [pleasant] bitterness. It’s going to be really intense. You need a wine that is going to be [just] as intense.”
For her palate, that wine is vintage port. “You can get a good bottle for $75,” says Wall. “It has alcohol, tannin, super-intense flavour.”
The wine and the chocolate “are going to match notes. One won’t overpower the other. They’re going to have equal volume, equal strength, you’re going to taste them both” – with both being even better for the pairing.
Go alcohol free
With the growing interest in alcohol-free options, gift-givers might consider pairing Valentine’s sweets with a selection of zero or near-zero per cent wines. In response to demand, they’re increasing in quality, says Wall, who points to France’s Pierre Zéro as an industry standout.
“Always keep in mind that most low-alcohol options are going to be sweet,” says Wall. “But pair that wine with something sweet and it’s going to taste a lot drier.”
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